The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on vulnerable groups all over the country, one of the lesser recognized groups being victims of domestic violence. Mass efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and save lives has resulted in stay at home orders being put in place in nearly every state, which has left women and children living with domestic violence with no escape from their abusers.
Domestic violence hotlines are fielding more and more calls every day from victims of domestic violence who are confined to their homes with violent partners whose abusive and coercive behaviors have been ramped up due to the emotional and financial strain of COVID-19. And because of orders to self-isolate, these victims have been cut off from their support systems and their access to essential emergency services, social services and shelter systems has been severely limited.
Table of Contents
- What Constitutes Domestic Violence?
- Police See Rise in Domestic Violence Calls Across U.S.
- Domestic Violence on the Rise Globally
- Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence
- COVID-19 Results in Increased Stress at Home
- Victims Find it Difficult to Seek Help
- Reduced Access to Medical Care
- Financial Stress Resulting from Coronavirus Quarantine
- Expanding Access to Domestic Violence Services During COVID-19
- Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence
What Constitutes Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence is defined as violence or any other type of abuse perpetrated against an intimate partner with the purpose of physically harming, scaring or controlling the partner. The abuse does not have to result in physical harm to be considered domestic violence. Threats, insults, sexual coercion and emotional abuse are all types of domestic violence. And while victims of domestic violence are typically portrayed as females and the perpetrators as males, domestic violence is a complex issue that affects people of all genders, ages, races and sexual orientation.
Men, children and the elderly can be victims of domestic violence, as can partners in same-sex relationships. In the United States, more than 12 million women and men are the victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner every year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.
Police See Rise in Domestic Violence Calls Across U.S.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the country, social isolation has become a necessary precaution against the extremely contagious illness known as COVID-19. Unfortunately, the same safety measures being put in place to protect as many people as possible from COVID-19 could have the opposite effect for those already in unsafe situations as a result of domestic violence. Law enforcement officials in cities across the country have seen the number of domestic violence calls increase amid the implementation of widespread stay at home orders that began in March, and NBC reported in early April that domestic violence cases nationwide had increased up to 35% in the previous weeks.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, people everywhere are being bombarded with messages to stay at home for their own safety and the safety of others, but for victims of domestic violence, home is not a safe place for them to be. In fact, the widespread restrictions on movement may be making domestic violence in homes across the country more frequent and more dangerous.
Domestic Violence on the Rise Globally
Being forced to stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic is difficult for everyone, but even more so for victims of abuse who are now trapped in their homes with partners who are prone to violence. For many people experiencing domestic violence, going to school or work offers them a respite from the abuse. But coronavirus has put an end to that. “People are losing these pockets of rest, places where they can regroup and recharge,” says the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Katie Ray-Jones. “We’re very worried about that.” Unfortunately, the rise in domestic violence is a pattern that is being repeated around the globe. With a large majority of people confined to their homes, there has been a surge of domestic violence cases attributed to the quarantine and coronavirus isolation in several countries, including the U.S. “My husband won’t let me leave the house,” said one victim of domestic violence on a phone call to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “He’s had flu-like symptoms and blames keeping me here on not wanting to infect others or bringing something like COVID-19 home. But I feel like it’s just an attempt to isolate me.” Another victim said her husband was making her scrub her hands to the point that they were raw, sore and bleeding.
Impact of COVID-19 on Domestic Violence
Some say the rise in domestic violence was a predictable side effect of the coronavirus outbreak. After all, it isn’t uncommon for domestic violence rates to increase during an emergency situation, such as an economic crisis, war or natural disaster. But the COVID-19 quarantine poses a uniquely difficult challenge. As a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, both the availability of domestic violence services and the ability of victims to access these services may be significantly reduced for the foreseeable future. Add to that the fact that social distancing and isolation orders, while necessary to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus, provide an opportunity for perpetrators of domestic violence to subject their victims to further abuse, and we have a serious problem that could get worse before it gets better. Domestic violence and other types of abusive relationships are based on control and power. Right now, everyone is feeling a little bit like they have lost some control because of COVID-19 and perpetrators of domestic violence may take it out on their victims.
COVID-19 Results in Increased Stress at Home
As cities around the world are put on lockdown and people are warned to stay in their homes, victims of domestic violence are desperately looking for a way out. For people experiencing domestic violence, stay at home orders have left them trapped in their homes with their abusers, isolated from the people and resources that could potentially help them. In the United States, where there has been more than 928,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has received a growing number of calls from domestic violence victims who say that their abusers are using COVID-19 as an excuse to further isolate them from their family and friends. “Perpetrators are threatening to throw their victims out on the street so they get sick,” says Ray-Jones. “We’ve heard of some withholding financial resources or medical assistance.”
As of late March, the National Domestic Violence Hotline was fielding nearly 2,000 calls a day from victims of domestic violence and said that a spike in calls could mean violence is increasing. Many victims who are already in an abusive situation may find themselves facing more severe violence during the coronavirus pandemic, without being able to escape the abuse by visiting with friends or going to work or school. “An unintended but foreseeable consequence of these drastic [stay at home] measures will be increased stress at home, which in turn creates a greater risk for domestic violence,” wrote two dozen senators from nearly 20 states in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services requesting that agencies providing support to domestic violence victims and their children remain accessible through the pandemic.
Victims Find it Difficult to Seek Help
Even with domestic violence rates on the rise during COVID-19, many believe these figures are likely underreported, as they only include cases where victims were actually able to seek help. Even before the pandemic struck, 50% of domestic abuse cases went unreported and there is no doubt that COVID-19 has made it more difficult for victims of domestic violence to get the help they need in a crisis. Many abuse victims are unable to make phone calls or leave their homes to report the abuse for fear of being found out and punished by their abusers. Additionally, many domestic violence advocacy groups and nonprofit shelters where victims might have gone for help have been forced to shut down their support groups and volunteer programs and cancel fundraisers and walk-in appointments in order to limit the number of people entering their facilities due to coronavirus concerns.
Reduced Access to Medical Care
Medical facilities in many parts of the U.S. have been overwhelmed by coronavirus cases and this makes it all the more challenging for domestic violence victims to get access to medical care. In addition to having fewer options for seeking help, victims of domestic violence may avoid seeking medical care after experiencing abuse due to concerns about being exposed to coronavirus at a clinic or hospital. Or they may feel as though they cannot seek refuge at the home of a friend or family member due to travel restrictions or for fear that they could end up exposing loved ones to COVID-19.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis has also left many people struggling with financial insecurity, which makes it more difficult for victims to maintain financial independence from their abusers. Without reliable income, victims may have a much more difficult time saving up enough money to leave their violent partners. And financial stress stemming from job loss or reduced work hours can add additional strain to an already volatile relationship.
Expanding Access to Domestic Violence Services During COVID-19
Having people stay at home and self-isolate is an important step in the battle against coronavirus. However, it can pose a significant risk for the thousands of women, children and others experiencing domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence forced to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic face a greater risk of being trapped in abusive and/or coercive situations, possibly with decreased access to life-saving services. “What we’re seeing is the needs are similar as we see after a natural disaster,” says Deborah Vagins, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “But this is much more challenging because COVID is affecting the entire country at once.” According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, abusive partners are leveraging coronavirus to “further isolate, coerce, or increase fear in the relationship,” and some say the risk to victims of domestic violence could last longer than the quarantine or the virus itself.
In Illinois, to account for the increased risk of domestic violence during Governor JB Pritzker’s stay at home order, the Department of Human Services made the decision to expand services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. In early April, IDHS announced a $1.2 million initiative to increase access to the state’s network of survivor services during COVID-19. “While most Illinoisans are adhering to the Stay at Home order,” said Governor Pritzker in response to the initiative, “not everyone has a safe home to go to.” IDHS Secretary Grace B. Hou expanded on the statewide domestic violence services plan, saying, “During times of crisis, there may be an increase in domestic and sexual violence, while barriers to services are compounded. The health and safety of survivors during COVID-19 is of the utmost importance to IDHS and Gov. Pritzker, and today’s actions will ensure that access to these critical services continues.”
Resources for Victims of Domestic Violence
The COVID-19 public health crisis has resulted in a great deal of uncertainty for everyone. But for victims of domestic violence, there is an added level of fear and insecurity surrounding the pandemic and the restrictions that keep them indoors and at home with limited opportunities to leave or call for help. Domestic violence is a serious issue, one that affects millions of people in Illinois and across the country every year. If you have been the victim of domestic violence during COVID-19, you aren’t alone. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24 hours a day and can be reached by calling 1-800-799-SAFE. The number for the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-877-TO END DV. If an abusive partner poses an immediate threat to your safety or well-being, call 911.